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Focus on Interiors

Part 1: Mr. Designer, Tear Down This (Cubicle) Wall

Part 2: Technology Can Help Support Workplace Efficiency


Mr. Designer, Tear Down This (Cubicle) Wall

By Andrew Laing - May 2011 - Ceilings, Furniture & Walls


Doing more with less is a common theme for organizations in the aftermath of the global recession. Some organizations are able to do more with less in creative ways that spur innovation and add value to their performance rather than just reduce cost.

Nowhere is this more evident than in commercial real estate. The interior of the workplace is now the surprising setting for a revolution in how work gets done. Leading organizations are using the design of the office to accelerate changes in work patterns, behaviors and culture. The old way of thinking about the design of the office was driven by efficiency and cost savings; the new ways of thinking about design are driving productivity and user satisfaction.

A series of changes — in how we work, how we use technology, and how we behave in the office — has begun to transform the workplace. Smart organizations are taking advantage of these changes and using them to reinvent the office, creating highly productive workplaces that stimulate and satisfy the users and occupiers.

The old way of doing more with less was to shrink space standards. Most organizations have done the rounds of shrinking cubicles or workstations and the size of offices. Those are easy fixes to a challenge of shrinking resources and the need to cut costs. Many organizations have also re-thought the allocation of space. Fewer people get offices, more people sit in open plan workspaces. Individual workspace is increasingly seen as a residual. Collaboration space has become a primary focus of work activity and of workplace design.

The more progressive organizations have recognized that shifting the sizes of individual workspaces does not address a major change in how work gets done. Work has become more collaborative, both through networks and through the increasing need for face-to-face collaboration on projects and teams. In fact, virtual and face-to-face interactions are often coinciding — face-to-face meetings or discussions need to incorporate virtual and remote participants. So an increasing proportion of square footage is devoted to collaboration spaces and associated technologies of presentation and interaction. The challenge of the workspace is focused much more on designing for successful meetings and great interactions of all kinds and much less on the individual workspace.

Many experts have noted the shrinking of the cubicle. What some fail to notice is the shift to more collaborative requirements, and that work and workspace are in the process of being reinvented. There is a sense in the media that one of the icons of American life, the cubicle, much derided by cartoon character Dilbert and others, is under siege. Not only is the high-paneled cubicle shrinking, its walls are coming down. The more open and visible workbench is replacing the illusory privacy of the cubicle. The workspace for the individual is being replaced and augmented by many other complementary spaces for collaboration, both formal and informal.

There are limits to how far the density of individual workspaces can be pushed and how much improvement can be achieved by supplementing individual spaces with shared spaces for meetings of various kinds. Two conflicting drivers are challenging organizations to think differently about space and organizational performance. On one hand, there are physical limits to how small individual workspaces can be. On the other hand, information technology is enabling many office workers to be mobile in where and how they get their work done. Sitting in an office or cubicle all day is not productive. The increasingly collaborative nature of work means that the time spent doing individually focused work in a dedicated individual workspace is reduced.

Leading organizations are therefore going beyond the density parameter to create new kinds of workplaces that integrate patterns of mobility and the preferences of individuals to work in a variety of locations and settings inside and outside the office building.

From Dedicated to Shared Spaces

The most innovative lever of change is to challenge the assumption that everyone needs a dedicated workspace. Start from the perspective that the office should accommodate the needs of the work to be done, rather than assuming that everyone needs to own an individual workspace. This is not such a challenging change of direction when organizations realize that most individual workspaces are actively in use only around 35 to 40 percent of the typical working day. The frame of reference of the workplace is changed from "Where is my space?" to "How do I use several different settings for team work, or quiet work, in the office to get my work done?" This variety of settings is supplemented by spaces that can be used remotely, at home or in other locations outside the office.

The driver for these innovations is not merely cost savings — which are certainly possible — but the possibility of creating workspaces that build in flexibility and adaptability and which enable agile change. When the workplace becomes part of a broader infrastructure of space and technology through which individuals move and which they use on an as-needed basis, then there is the potential for surprising increases in user satisfaction and higher levels of work performance.




Focus on Interiors

Part 1: Mr. Designer, Tear Down This (Cubicle) Wall

Part 2: Technology Can Help Support Workplace Efficiency


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